Wednesday, August 30, 2017

American Transportation – The Whole Story

As an early vehicle collector and historian, I’ve had a number of people ask me what I gravitate toward when adding wood-wheeled transportation to our collection.  Many expect the answer to center around a popular make or type of vehicle – and I can easily provide a response like that.  Beyond my intrigue with the heavier work and western-themed vehicles, though, perhaps the real question should be ‘why’ I collect what I do.  In that case, my response will touch (at least partially) on the selection of pieces with the best investment potential.  You’ll also probably hear me share some stories related to the thrill of the chase.  Even so, there’s still another driving force behind what we do – the stories.  For me, this is where the real rewards are.  The background behind each of the transportation pieces we collect is full of drama, struggle, failure, and triumph.  It’s real life adventure we can watch unfold and learn from.  Growing through these discoveries is what really fuels our efforts.  As a result, our collecting isn’t limited to just vehicles or brands but to almost everything that surrounds the unique history of America’s first transportation industry.  After all, that’s essentially what gives anything intrigue – those feature-rich, back-stories highlighting interesting details we never knew.   

This small stage wagon once plied the trails around California’s most lucrative gold mine – The Utica at Angels Camp.  From the incredible rags to riches story of the mine to the exceptional rarity of the vehicle, this mail stage is an extraordinary survivor from America’s Wild West.

It’s a focus that sounds simple enough but the truth is that, in roughly two hundred years of travel in the New World, there’s an extraordinary amount of depth and breadth to this topic – far beyond the old vehicles, themselves.  The ‘extra’ pieces I find myself searching for and stumbling across do more than tell their own story, they help flesh out the overall accounts while reinforcing the vastness and complexity of this old trade.

This traveler’s guide dates to 1836.  While it provides details of stage, steamboat, canal, and railroad routes in those days, we have other western guidebooks that once supplied important information related to western overland trails.

So, while we have a few dozen vehicles in our collection, the supporting elements that help profile the entire industry will measure in the thousands.  Original photos related to makers, patents, lifestyle activities, brands, vehicle types, and special events are among the countless black and white remnants we’ve salvaged and assembled.  These pieces are complemented by several hundred period brochures and promotional pieces.  Even multiple hardware variations within the categories of skeins, wrenches, drag shoes, brake ratchets, reaches, rub irons, springs, chains, maker tags, and the like can each have stories associated with them.

This new, old stock sign was designed to be applied to the inside of glass windows.  It was made by Palm Bros. & Co. and was referred to as a translusign.

Other elements of our collection include vehicle-related patent documents, maker ledgers, manufacturing equipment, antique signs, hames bells, unique wrenches, and other all-but-forgotten-but-once-important elements from yesterday.  It’s a collage of commerce that consistently helps bring a prominent part of our past back to life.  We’ve even assembled some horse drawn transportation pieces as a result of their relevance to the beginnings of the auto industry.  After all, this part of history heavily relied on the wagon and carriage business to get themselves established.  How so?  In some cases, as with Chevrolet/General Motors, the motorized upstarts needed others who could help secure financial capital and production insights.  In other circumstances, brands like Ford and others, depended on the body-making skills from craftsmen who had learned the trade from wagon and coach building.  Still others, leaned on the engineering acumen from period machine builders, blacksmiths, and wheel makers.  The truth is, the American automobile story can’t be completely told without sharing the foundation of the whole enterprise – the horse-drawn vehicle industry.  In many ways, it was a good news/bad news kind of relationship between the two.  It was an opportunity for some employees and entrepreneurs to embrace the next generation of vehicles.  In the beginning, they each capitalized on the other, although one was destined to lose during the transition.

Many early innovators hired a photographer to capture patented advancements while using the image within sales promotions.  This image highlights a unique, folding step that could easily be attached to the sideboards of wagons.  

The criteria for inclusion within our collection often requires us to look beyond the individual value of the single piece.  If it’s a unique element that helps tell the story in a more detailed and interesting way, there’s a fair chance we’ll try and include it with all of the other artifacts we house.  

As is so often the case, the history we’ve assembled has a way of finding us as much as we find it.  It's a truth we discovered some thirty years ago when we purchased the acreage we live on.  The place is an old farm with roots dating back hundreds of years.  A well-worn wagon road still runs alongside the original stone farmhouse on the property.  Over the years, we’ve found numerous transportation-related artifacts along this road; a heavy, 56-inch steel tire (likely from an ore or freight wagon), an early-style rub iron, a brake lever, box rod parts, brake shoe, and other similar parts.  The truth is that wheeled transportation has always been a big part of this country’s history and only through continued research will we be able to pass along the most accurate details about period vehicles.  Surely, we owe that much to future generations.

An extraordinary find, we were pleased to add this original catalog of Pabst Beer wagons to our collection years ago.

Period photos can be helpful to restoration professionals as well as historians by providing a clearer understanding of what a particular vehicle looked like during the different seasons of its life.

Many will be traveling this week and next, enjoying the blessing of a long Labor Day weekend.  We wish you safe journeys and encourage you to keep your eye out for unique parts of our wheeled past.  There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle still out there but, it often takes intense focus to help locate and understand all of what we find.  Slowly and collectively, we’re putting everything back together, growing appreciation for a huge and immensely complicated industry.  Good luck in your own collecting endeavors and send us some shots of your ‘finds’ from time to time.  We’d enjoy seeing the fruits of your labors.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC